Outfit Post: Physical activity, body image, and an act of courage

Here's a sobering statistic I came across while researching a post: Apparently, around 1 in 4 women in the US have avoided engaging in a physical activity or sport because they feel badly about the way they look. ( Dove, Beyond Stereotypes: Rebuilding the Foundation of Beauty Beliefs)

I have never been a huge fan of the gym. It's true that there have been brief periods in my life where I've held a membership. My gym phases were largely characterized by the purchase of tourniquet-like sports bras, the strict avoidance of group classes, and some rather comical displays of athletic prowess (I am the girl who has fallen off the treadmill in public. Believe it.) Between my embarrassment over sweating profusely in public and propensity for hiding in the locker room, fumbling with my iPod and avoiding eye contact, it's no shock that just walking into a gym makes me uncomfortable.

However, it was during my flirtation as a gym member last summer that I discovered running. Imagine my shock when I, chronic exercise-avoider and couch surfer, learned that I loved to run. I felt accomplished after pounding out three miles. I was proud of the new athletic shape my body took. I loved reading about endurance tips and energy gels in Runner's World. Hell, I even loved that I had a legitimate reason to read Runner's World.

But running at the gym was an adventure in both physical sport and emotional distress. Because while I was on the treadmill, sweat pouring down my temples, all I could concentrate on what what I believed other gym goers could see. Where they watching my ass jiggle on the treadmill? Could they see the perspiration dripping down my back? Was I flabbier/fatter/less toned than the woman next to me? Wow, she's going so much faster than I am. I suck at running. I must look ridiculous. Why am I doing this? Oh, great, there's that super fit mom I know parading around the gym in a teeny tiny sports bra and teeny tiny shorts. She has zero percent body fat and probably runs a marathon without so much as a glimmer of sweat on her perfect brow before going to her daily pilates class. Why can't I look like that? I hate my thighs. OH MY GOD WHY AM I DOING THIS I AM A WHALE STOP LOOKING AT ME AAARRRGGGHHHH!!!

With every pound pound pound of my feet on the treadmill a litany of negative thoughts tore through my head. Thighs thighs thighs, fat fat fat, jiggle jiggle jiggle.

Negative body image can have a huge impact on exercise. We all know how important it is to be active - the merits of physical activity include strengthened muscles, stronger bones, decreased stress and better sleep. But it's no surprise that so many women feel uneasy in an environment where bodies are seemingly on display. Whether the discomfort comes from working out in front of men, the fear that they're being compared to other women, or the disdain to be seen perspiring and red-faced, it's there, and interferes in efforts to get healthy and stay active.

Now I ask you: have you every avoided exercise because of negative body image? Do you avoid working out in public because you feel badly about how you look? Do you have any advice for those who struggle with balancing negative body image and exercising?

(And now, in an act of courage, I present to you a pic of me after a workout. With undeniable proof of how good I feel after a run, despite fighting negative body thoughts.)


  1. You look amazing and are an inspiration! I used to avoid alot of activities because I am a bit overweight but that all changed when my grandkidlets came along. Suddenly swimming with them, who would love me no matter what I look like, is so much more important than what anyone else thinks. I am making memories for me and more importantly for them. They will be remembering how fun grandma is not how fat she is. Great topic, thanks!

  2. Awesome post! I love it! I do work out at the gym but I really felt the way you felt when I first started. I am still getting over the fact that I make weird faces when I lift weights. :)

    I have a trick though, that I think you'll enjoy. Every time I look in the mirror and start to think about how I could look better I think of a scene from Beer Fest. The one when Barry is drunk, looking in the mens bathroom mirror while wearing a beer box hat and says "Looking good Barry...." (I am not posting the entire quote, you'll have to watch it for the rest)

    I think of that and laugh! It makes me stop thinking negatively about myself. Thank you for this post!

  3. *raises hand* Hi. My name is B, and I bought an elliptical machine (partly) so I could avoid the stares I might get at the gym. Also, I am one of those people who thinks "I need to get in better shape before I can go to the gym!"

    As I was reading this I kept nodding my head in agreement until I eventually looked like a bobblehead doll. That is exactly what I go through at the gym, but for me the passion is via the elliptical, not running.

    The funny thing is, if I have a friend with me at the gym then I am fine and completely unselfconscious. But if I am by myself, all my insecurities seem to come rushing out! It's quite ridiculous, really, but for some reason I can't control it. So I bought an elliptical for my basement. That way I still get my workout in and hopefully I'll eventually want to go to a gym again.

    You - you look amazing post run! Kuddos for you for facing your insecurities head on and not cowering from them like I do!

  4. Oh my gosh, I am SO GLAD I have remained relatively immune to this myself. Outdoor exercise during the long MN winter is tough for those of us who don't ski, so the gym is a necessity. And while I certainly look around at other people while working out, I never give much thought to how I compare. I feel pretty invisible, and I'm just fine with that.

  5. That made me a tiny bit sad. I hate the thought of anyone not doing something they may potentially enjoy because they are so worried about what others think. Now with that said, I GET IT! I don't think any woman would say they didn't. But its kind of like this. You remember your first day of school? That insecure ucky feeling that you are just positive no one will EVER like you. That's how the gym is. Anyone who has gone to the gym more than a month is not looking at you. You see A LOT of people everyday and you see people of all sizes and experience. It all melds into a big lump of humanity that sweats a lot (we all sweat a lot).

    Can I suggest to anyone who has a gym membership and has no idea what to do with it. Try a spinning class. Its easy to not feel so stupid and new in those classes. Its not like your jumping around trying to dance. It can also easily burn close to a 1000 calories.

    Oh and Elissa, I still hate the treadmill. I don't know what it is about that evil thing but I feel like I'm going to fly the heck off it. I am in awe of anyone who can RUN on it. To me its as amazing as watching someone on a tight rope!:)

  6. I love your after-nun picture. Thank you for posting it, you look so cute and happy!

    I never really felt this way at the gym, but I have felt this way when I ran outside. I didn't want anyone to see me running outside, especially as a teenager. I got over it a little in college, but even now I have to push those thoughts out of my head. Though sometimes I want to be seen while running because I'm convinced that I look hot. But I do feel silly around the other runners because I run so slow. But that's just how I run.

  7. Great post! You look so exhilarated after your run.

    I used to go to the gym a lot, and now work out at home. But not because I care how I look when exercising -- I'm just lazy and a little bit cheap! I do try to coordinate my sports bra and shorts, just for my own enjoyment.

  8. That is one wonderful, happy picture - it makes me feel good just to look at it. As someone who hated PE and gym throughout my school career because we were always sorted into groups of those who could do something well and those who couldn't (guess where I was), and who finds most exercise insanely boring, I rely pretty much on yoga and walking. I think that if I miss it when I stop doing it, that's a good reason to keep doing something, and yoga and walking both qualify - I genuinely enjoy them, and life is far too short to spend hours doing something you hate. (I am reminded of Robert Benchley's remark that he avoided exercise because it released all the poisons that were otherwise safely stored in his joints.)

  9. I have more than my fair share of body insecurity, but for some reason it never comes out at the gym. I guess I just figure you're supposed to look sweaty and gross at the gym. I feel pretty lucky in this regard, but I'm less lucky in the endurance department. Oh, how I wish I liked running like you do! There's really nothing I hate more. Also, I know this is not why you posted the picture, but you should know that you look damn good in your workout gear - super fit and healthy.

  10. The photo of you post-workout is just joyous! I do avoid exercise...but I think its less because of how I look as it is what I'm not able to do, strength-wise.

  11. Well, you couldn't pay me to go to an actual gym, but that has nothing to do with how I look :)

    On the other hand, one of the things I like best about the little old lady yoga class I take through the local hospital is that nobody in the class is wearing Athleta togs and trying to look amazing. We're just there to work on our downward dog (and fall asleep during shivasana).

    It's also a benefit to taking martial arts (although not one of the reasons I take it): nobody looks good sweating their ass off in a uniform!

  12. Love that pic! I feel the same way about the gym. I have a membership and use it rarely because I feel self-conscious and end up comparing myself to all the other women there and wonder if the guys are checking me out. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable. I was never athletic as a kid. I, too, discovered a love for running last year. I love to run outside and don't feel self conscious at all. Glad you posted this. We're all in this together.

  13. I've never had this problem with the gym. People thinner and fitter than I abound on the street too -- the gym doesn't really make it worse for me because I'm there focusing on what I'm doing. If anyone is looking at me, I don't notice. No need for me to be staring around, I'm watching TV or my form in the mirror or whatever!

  14. My body image has never stopped me from going to the gym, maybe it's made me go more. But I totally know what you are saying with the comparisons between yourself and others. For me, sometimes those moments are distressing because you think you will never measure up. But there are other times, like when the muscled guy gets on the treadmill next to you and you win the silent war of who can go longer. (Love that!)
    Also, for me, one thing I noticed is that when I started working out at the gym I wore baggy gym shorts and oversized t-shirts that I had amassed over the years. I thought that was the standard. But then I realized I didn't look feminine at all, and while I was sweating away like a man, I didn't need to look like one too. So I went out and bought some more fitted, but not tight, clothing and take pride in being a girl who can run and lift and own the gym!
    Great post!!

  15. I always enjoy reading your posts, putting yourself out there and bringing up things that we always try to hide. I exercise because I enjoy it and I don't like gyms because they smell funny to me. lol. I've known so many friends who HAVE to look cute going to the gym or they won't work out. It wasn't always like this.

  16. You look awesome Elissa!! I wish I looked that happy after ten minutes on the treadmill....errr...but I don't....My picture would prob have the middle finger up.

    I'm gonna channel my inner Elissa when I attempt to jog next year.

    I'm so glad you did this post


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